Last in line

 

The outbreak started in February. Migratory waterfowl heading south along the West Coast found the wetlands of northern California's Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge -- a major stopover point on the Pacific Flyway -- half dry. Nearly 2 million birds passed through the area as winter edged toward spring, many crowding into the remaining 15,000 marshy acres, reports the San Francisco Chronicle.  Such tight conditions are a playground for disease, and by March, an estimated 10,000 to 20,000 birds had died of avian cholera -- the worst such outbreak the complex of refuges on the Oregon-California border, of which the Lower Klamath is a part, has seen in 10 to 15 years, according to the Oregonian:

Snow geese were the main species affected, ... along with Ross' and white-fronted geese and northern pintail ducks, which arrived in unusually large numbers this year. ... Avian cholera strikes the refuges every year. (But) normally, said (Ron Cole, project leader for the Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge Complex), the deaths are in the hundreds or low thousands.

Why the low water? The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which controls the water sources for the Lower Klamath refuge, held it back in Upper Klamath Lake from December to mid-March, blaming the Klamath Basin's dry winter and what the Oregonian describes as "projections of dismal inflows." You see, the lake stores water for irrigators and endangered fish on the Klamath River, and in the pecking order for water in the Klamath River Basin, wildlife refuges are currently last in priority, behind fish, then tribes and then farmers. 

It's a sad state of affairs for a basin that once contained 185,000 acres of shallow lakes and freshwater marshes. Thanks to BuRec, much of that was replumbed and drained over the last century to support agriculture and settlement; today, less than 25 percent the historic wetlands remain, and in dry years, they often go wanting.

Though the bird die-off subsided as the migration slowed, spring rains fell and the agency began releasing a little water again, it lives on as the latest ammo in the salvo over the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement (for background, check out Matt Jenkins' 2008 feature, "Peace on the Klamath" and my followup blog, "The long and winding road") which is currently stalled in Congress along with an agreement to remove four dams on the Klamath River under the umbrella of the Klamath Basin Restoration Act. The KBRA is a sort of detente in a more than decade-long war over not-enough water that pitted endangered fish and tribes against farmers. The product of multiple years of negotiation between some of the tribes with fishery interests in the Klamath River, BuRec, the Fish and Wildlife Service, irrigators who draw from BuRec's Klamath Project, environmental groups and commercial fishermen, the settlement would, proponents say, ensure more water in the river system for fish most of the time in exchange for more certainty for farmers.

They also argue that the KBRA will prevent occurrences like the die-off much more effectively than the regulatory framework in place now. “Currently, the refuges get inadequate deliveries in eight out of 10 years,” Craig Tucker, the Klamath Coordinator for the Karuk Tribe, and a "vocal architect of the Klamath deals," told the Two Rivers Tribune. “Under the agreements they would get adequate water in nine out of 10 years.”

Indeed, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's own analysis of the deal's effects vs. the status quo (pdf), the Lower Klamath would, in general, receive more water under the KBRA. The agency's models showed that from November to February, the refuge would receive an allocation of 35,000 acre-feet in all but 5 percent of years, presumably the driest, and from March to October, it would receive an allocation of 48,000-60,000 acre-feet in all but 10 percent of years. The agreement would also funnel 20 percent of income from a program where refuge land is leased to farms to the refuges, which currently see none of that money.

But opponents like the environmental groups OregonWild and WaterWatch point out that the KBRA locks in those lessees -- which themselves draw a significant amount of water -- for 50 years, doing the refuges more harm than good: "To protect a sweetheart deal for a small group of irrigators, the settlement attempts to perpetuate commercial leaseland farming on 22,000 acres of Tule Lake and Lower Klamath refuges and asks taxpayers to subsidize this harmful practice," WaterWatch Director John DeVoe wrote in a recent Oregonian editorial. "In contrast, phasing out this federally managed program, using those lands to store winter water, and using the 1905 priority date water rights associated with those lands for fish and wildlife purposes would represent a huge step toward a sustainable Klamath Basin -- at a fraction of the cost of the settlement deal."

DeVoe also argues that the dry years when the KBRA doesn't come through could prove harmful:

...the settlement won't relieve the drought-year toll on Lower Klamath wetlands, and requires that difficult and counterproductive preconditions be met before allowing an inadequate refuge water allocation. Critically, one precondition is issuance of new federal rules guaranteeing irrigators more water in dry years than current law provides. This would be achieved in part by sacrificing flows for protected Klamath River salmon.

Whatever happens with the KBRA, it likely won't occur soon enough to help or harm the Lower Klamath refuge's waterfowl. In the meantime, water allocations for the refuge this summer are looking especially dismal, reports the Herald & News:

The Bureau of Reclamation ... said there would be 15,000 acre-feet of water available for the Lower Klamath refuge from April through September. That’s ... far short of the 36,000 acre-feet the refuge could optimally use in that time, said Matt Baun, a spokesman with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The water will help provide more habitat for migratory birds during the upcoming nesting season, said Dave Mauser, wildlife biologist at the refuge. But without water deliveries late in the summer, the Lower Klamath refuge ... will likely be dry by the time the fall waterfowl migration begins in September.

While the powers that be puzzle out a solution to the larger conflicts on the Klamath, one can only hope that the toll of the ever-deepening mess won't be too great.

Sarah Gilman is High Country News' Associate Editor

Photo of the Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge courtesy of Flickr user USFWS headquarters; photographer, Tupper Ansel Blake.

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